Taking a compassionate approach to human-elephant conflict

This is an op-ed Written by Jason Bell-Leask, Director - Southern Africa, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

For more information about this translocation please visit www.ifaw.org/helpelephants.

This month will see the end of 10 years of strife between the Phirilongwe elephants and the villagers of Mangochi district, when the elephants are moved to Majete Wildlife Reserve in Chikwawa.

E1389 Over the years at least 10 people have been killed by the elephants. But the elephants have also suffered, with some having been killed and many maimed by locals trying to protect themselves and their livelihoods.

The question of what to do with the Phirilongwe elephants has been swirling in political and conservation circles for some years. Mangochi District offers what is described as the best complete package of tourism in Malawi – Lake Malawi National Park, Phirilongwe Forest Reserve and the most beautiful spot on the lake, Cape Maclear – and elephants are part of that mix.

But it is also a densely populated area of 30-plus villages where the community ekes out an existence as subsistence farmers in a “ribbon” of settlements that run along the lake’s shores, effectively blocking the elephants’ access to the lake and forcing them to walk through villages and farmland to get to water, damaging crops and property as they go.

Malawi is a good example of a densely populated country in which wildlife can only be practically conserved in protected areas which are, literally, islands in a sea of people.

When elephants and people live so closely together politicians and decision makers are presented with a problem – how to balance the security needs of humans with the undoubted fact that elephants attract tourist dollars? While it’s difficult to calculate exactly how much money elephant tourism raises there’s no doubt that the “big boys” of the big five are definite money spinners.

In the case of the 60 or so Phirilongwe elephants, their status as tourist attractions versus the undoubted conflicts between them and the villagers has, over the years, caused many a bitter argument.

When it came down to it though it was, and rightly so, the needs and safety of the community that had to be considered and so it was finally agreed that the elephants had to go.

This could easily have led to another dilemma: What to do with the elephants? There are only two options – move them to a protected area or cull them through “problem animal” control.

The easiest and swiftest response for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DPNW) would have been to choose the “quick fix” approach and kill the elephants. But this would be unacceptable on animal welfare grounds.

Instead, the Government has decided to move the entire herd to safety in Majete Wildlife Reserve. DPNW has teamed up with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW – www.ifaw.org) which has agreed to fund, in most part, the elephants’ relocation.

The Government is to be commended for taking an ethically responsible decision in this matter. Their commitment represents a win-win scenario for the well-being of both people and elephants, and emphasises that quick fix solutions to conservation dilemmas are not desirable -- or necessary.

The Phirilongwe elephants will be moved to their new home from the beginning of June. Once there the elephants will be free from persecution. They will also be an important tourism asset for Majete and communities in the Mangochi area will no longer have to fear for their lives and livelihoods.

Importantly, the Government of Malawi will have shown the world that a compassionate approach to solving human-elephant conflict is possible.

For more information please visit www.ifaw.org/helpelephants

Comments: 1

8 years ago

According to African Parks June report the Majete "elephants are breaking out of the fence and raiding nearby fields." Why is IFAW risking the lives of the people near Majete? Why did IFAW not support the plan to keep the Phirilongwe elephants in their home habitat and help the people develop a their tourist industry? Was an environmental study made in Mangochi and Machete to examine the risks to the people and environment in both areas? Is it possible for IFAW to post this information on its website to stop the negative impression in Malawi concerning this move?

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